In contrast to conventional (flat) solar panels, flexible solar panel technology enables solar power to be generated by wafer-thin, light, and bendable panels that you can carry with you on the go. In fact, their portability is their primary selling point. It also helps that they are light on the pocket, with a 100-watt flexible solar panel available in the market for as little as $100.
We will discuss this new and upcoming technology, the various uses in the industry, and a helpful buying guide, so you are equipped to make the best choice for your needs.
Despite the rather obvious (and perhaps superficial) differences, flexible solar panels work a lot like conventional (flat) solar panels, as they are based on the same photovoltaic technology—the ability to generate solar power from direct sunlight absorbed by the material.
In fact, all forms of solar panels are strategically manufactured in dark blue/black shades, in order to absorb the maximum amount of sunlight (during daylight). This, in turn, will lead to a higher amount of power generation.
While conventional solar panels used for powering residences and commercial complexes are larger in size and wattage (typically multiple panels of 340-watts of power), and hence their bulky size, flexible solar panels are made to serve low-wattage power needs, and typically come in 50-watts to 300-watts capacity. In addition, this can be stored in a battery for later use.
For this reason, they are an especially useful power-bank that comes in handy when you are on the go. They can thus be comfortably used in RVs, boating equipment, marine equipment (including large yachts), on camping trips, during long-distance travel, and even for daily use as the primary source of power when you are living off the grid.
Here, the “type” refers to the underlying source material used in the panels. Accordingly, there are 3 major types in current use:
(Silicon) Crystalline flexible solar panels
Thin-film flexible solar panels
Flexible panels made of organic cells/materials
These are most commonly used in the market, and are made of the same silicon material used to create conventional panels. Here, a solar “panel” is comprised of many crystalline, photovoltaic flexible solar cells.
If the underlying material is silicon—which is incidentally found in plenty in beach sand—then how is it that conventional panels are flat and bulky while flexible solar panels are thin and lightweight?
This is because they are stacked differently based on thickness. For instance, for lightweight solar panels, the silicon wafers are sliced to a few micrometers (μm) thick, giving them the illusion of being flexible as they can bend up to 30 degrees.
In fact, this 30-degree flexibility is more than adequate for it to be easily mounted on curved surfaces, including boats. They are also often used as flexible solar panels for RV (also called caravan solar panels). In contrast, the wafers in conventional solar panels are sliced at about 200μm thick, thus making them thicker and heavier.
Next, the thin-layered flexible silicon panels are placed between a protective layer—typically made of plastic—in order to extend durability and portability. (Compare this with thick glass layers used in rooftop solar panels.) As you can imagine, these lightweight solar panels can generate a limited amount of solar power, and thus come in 50-watt, 100-watt, 200-watt, and 300-watt varieties.
However, they have a reasonable efficiency (15%–25%) of converting light into energy, and can hence be mighty useful as energy banks to power your RV during a camping trip, a boat/yacht, or even most electronic devices for a day when you find yourself unexpectedly off the grid. For this reason, they are heavily used in the marine industry (including on fishing boats).
This is a relatively nascent technology, where a photovoltaic material is printed or pasted on a thin surface (including cloth, thick paper, aluminum sheets, etc.). Without the protection of silicon, these are considered far less durable than their crystalline counterparts. However, this is still a growing technology, so a lot can happen in the future.
The primary advantage of using thin, portable solar panels is their super flexibility. They can be rolled up for storage and thus ideal for camping trips, where you may not care if they last for the following few years. This also makes them immensely lightweight, with some products weighing in at a mere 4 pounds.
The research presently on course at MIT works on producing robust, flexible solar panels made mostly of organic material. The primary challenge so far had been the brittle nature of the electrodes. In a recent breakthrough, graphene electrodes were introduced. With this, the solar industry has big expectations of producing higher quality solar panels with enhanced flexibility and extended durability.
Here, you may be surprised that there are as many advantages as there are disadvantages (or perhaps limitations with present technology). Highlights are listed below.
Serve as eco-friendly energy banks (battery needed)
Lightweight and portable
Easy on most pockets
Bendable enough to be multi-functional, as compared to conventional (flat) solar panels
Size matters, so limited power generation and storage. Even with an efficiency of up to 25%, you only get up to 300-watt flexible solar panels.
Less durable than solar panels. For instance, even a high-quality solar panel from Renogy comes with a 5-year product warranty, whereas a conventional solar panel can easily have a lifetime of 20–25 years.
Considering that flexible solar panels are designed to fit smaller energy needs and hence smaller pockets, the budget can range from $50–$60 (Windy Nation, Giaride) to $250 from SunPower for the same 100-watt panel. Higher power panels can go up to $500. In addition, cheaper products may also imply the use of cheaper and less durable materials such as PET plastic.
Sino Green New Energy Tech Co Ltd